Survival of the Cutest
Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 1, 2007
Through the bottleneck moments of the evolutionary process, cuteness may have played a significant role in helping our species survive. And, though some of us might like to believe that we are “looks-blind,” it seems, to the contrary, that there is a great deal of prejudice based on looks. Naomi Miles posted an interesting article on FirstScience.com this week, discussing some research regarding the situational causes and consequences of cuteness. We have excerpted portions of her article below.
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Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethnologist, looked into the science of cuteness in the 1940s. He compiled a list of the esthetic and behavioural characteristics we are particularly attracted to, and found that we are drawn to relatively large heads, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheeks, short and thick arms and legs, springy elastic skin, and clumsy movements.
Typically, these are the attributes of a child. Juveniles are not simply miniature adults; they have distinctive body proportions. A newborn has a large head in relation to the rest of its body, stubbier arms and legs and tiny hands and feet. As a baby grows up, the relative head size diminishes, the jaw gets bigger and the limbs become longer and leaner. A baby’s esthetic proportions are instantly recognisable, and we are hardwired to regard them as ‘cute’.
Lorenz noted that childish characteristics trigger a parental instinct. Cute things make us feel warm and exhilarated and we want to look after them. They awaken affection and feelings of nurture, making us want to pet and coo.
But when and why did our instinctive responses to cuteness develop? How has cuteness been an advantage in human development?
A couple of million years ago, human brain size began to increase. Childbirth became more painful, as fitting a bigger-brained baby through a narrow birth canal was a dangerous squeeze. Birth limited how big our brains could become.
Nature’s solution was for human babies to be born with highly undeveloped brains. Unlike other mammals, our grey matter does about 75% of its growing outside of the womb.
Since human babies are born helpless and take so long to develop, they are totally dependent upon adult care for everything. It takes about 17 months for newborns to become as independent and mobile as chimpanzees are at birth, and so we have an extremely extended childhood. For years, we rely on the love, attention and goodwill of our parents. If they abandon us, we don’t stand a chance.
But what would inspire parents of these immature babies to invest such a high level of care? Cuteness seems to play a major role.
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. . . Jeffrey Kurland, an associate professor of Biological Anthropology and Human Development from Penn State University, believes that our responses are truly innate, inherited from our primate ancestors. Kurland thinks that babies evolved to be cute, their cuteness perhaps conveying biological information about strong genes and good health. Women developed an appreciation of cuteness and, choosing to lavish more care on the cuter babies, gave them the best chance of survival.
According to scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada, good-looking babies have a definite advantage. A research team lead by Dr Andrew Harrell found that parents of cute newborns were more responsive and affectionate than mothers of less attractive babies. Gorgeous children also seemed to receive more notice from teachers and other adults as they grew up.
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Our imagination and abstracting tendencies mean that we also find animals, pictures and even concepts cute. For years, market research has looked into the images that people find appealing and has found that cuteness sells.
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To read the entire article, click here. For a 2004 article in NewScientist.com describing research finding that even babies prefer to look at attractive faces, click here. Dr. Andrew Harrell (from the University of Alberta, Canada) has found evidence suggesting that even parents discriminate among their children based on looks. For a brief description of the “halo effect,” and the way in which “good looks” generally advantage individuals, click here.
Growing public awarness has led to the somewhat hopeful trend of some commerical interests cleverly highlighting the role of other commercial interests in defining and exploiting unrealistic conceptions of beauty. For instance, the following ad, aptly titled “evolution,” is part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.